Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The biggest misconception about guns

In an article about the resistance to gun regulation in Newtown, CT, a man named Scott Ostrosky said:
“Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen.”
I think that's a terrible misconception.

In our society we rely on the free exchange of ideas to push our society in a given direction. When is it legitimate to conclude, "Talking is getting us nowhere. Time to fall back on my AR-15"? Is it ever legitimate?

Is it even true that the right to possess firearms is the source of freedom? I suppose it is, if you mean the freedom to live without restriction of any kind. Yet living in civil society implies accepting some restrictions. If anyone can throw off any restrictions he doesn't like, what kind of society is that?

That's not a totally strawman question, by the way. If the government were to knock on everyone's door to demand a DNA sample, I think most of us would feel it was totally appropriate to resist. We'd like to think we wouldn't let things get to that point, but who knows?

Yet the principle that resistance to injustice is sometimes acceptable doesn't mean that we need to accept unrestricted license to possess and to bear weapons. How many of us would feel comfortable, for instance, living next door to a group that possessed large numbers of automatic weapons and large quantities of explosives? I don't care if you're talking about a drug gang or an extremist cult (I'm thinking David Koresh), I want my government to be able to protect me from that group. After all, the right to possess weapons doesn't imply that the possessors are moral or well-meaning.

You say you don't want the ATF or the police doing the job, because the government can't be trusted? Well then, who can be? You? If you were to acquire the weapons and followers sufficient to defend against an outlaw gang, that would make you as potentially dangerous to the rest of us as the gang.

The government is the only entity that has even a semblance of institutional legitimacy baked into it. Institutional legitimacy, granted by the electorate, is what makes the police the police rather than a large and well-armed bunch of thugs. We rely on police officers to comply with the law themselves so they can act as guardians of our civil society. And for the most part, they do. We hear a lot about corrupt cops, but we forget that the overwhelming number of officers and departments are law-abiding themselves.

If you don't trust the police, if you don't believe that government has any institutional legitimacy, then you don't think our civil society works. At that point, the only "freedom" that is possible is the freedom to live apart from civil society. That's at least a rhetorically defensible stance, though to make it physically true you're going to have to work hard.

We don't enjoy our freedoms today because a little more than half of us have a gun in the house. We're free because the vast majority of us are committed to a shared set of ideals, and to living together in peace. That shared commitment, not pistols and rifles, is what keeps us free.

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